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An Offensive Image of Christ

AlexamenosThis early second-century graffito may be the oldest known artistic representation of Jesus Christ. It was discovered in Rome 150 years ago. It depicts someone standing before a crucified man with the head of an ass. The crude Greek scrawl reads  Αλεξαμενος σεβετε θεον—in the standardized spelling you may have learned in seminary it would be Αλεξαμενος σεβεται θεον—”Alexamenos worships [his] god.”

Christianity entered the Roman world as a despised foreign cult and often faced challenges not only from its educated despisers but from common people who simply didn’t have a clue about what the way of Jesus was all about. Common charges included incestuous orgies (because they referred to each other as “brother” or “sister”) and cannibalistic rituals (because they spoke of consuming the flesh and blood of their god). These sorts of charges were floating around even before the New Testament was completely written, and several biblical writers took pains to urge the faithful to live exemplary lives so as to rob these accusations of power before they were even made. First Peter, for example, exhorts,

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify god when he comes to judge. (1 Pet 2:11-12)

In short, the early church had a P.R. problem, which they sought to address by living out the teachings of Christ as fully and faithfully as possible. One could say the church in the twenty-first century also has a P.R. problem. The solution hasn’t changed.

Eventually, the prejudice of outsiders inspired certain Christians to go on the offensive. They did so not through lashing out at their accusers or rioting in the streets but through the written word. These were the first Apologists, people like Justin Martyr and the writer of the Epistle to Diognetus. They wrote extensively to set the record straight about what Christians believed and how they conducted their lives. They addressed the intellectual and philosophical sticking points of the elites as well as the crude, unfounded rumors that circulated about them among the uneducated majority.

One of these early Apologists had the following to say about the Christian life from roughly the time of Alexamenos and the unnamed person who mocked his faith:

They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. (Ep. Diog. 5:5-17)

There it is: no political platforms or litmus tests, no crowing about being in the majority (as if!), no clamoring for “rights” or demanding special treatment of any kind—unless you consider simple human decency and respect to be “special.” The first Christians simply continued to faithfully follow their Lord, suffering the hatred, scorn, and occasionally the lash or the sword of their despisers, until gradually, eventually, they transformed the world. They outlived their opponents. They out-died their opponents. They are remembered as saints.

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